THE VIRGINIA CAVALIERS JUST SECURED THEIR FIRST TOP-10 ROAD WIN EVER.
Straight to the takeaways.
VIRGINIA WINS A FOOTBALL GAME
Despite trailing 24-14 with 9:35 left in the fourth quarter following a 17-0 run from the Heels, the Wahoos fired back with a 10-0 run to tie the game at 24 before a CLUTCH fourth quarter drive from Tony Muskett put them up for good after an absurd Malik Washington catch and run ended with him in the endzone.
We’ll touch more heavily on Malik Washington in a second, but goodness gracious did anyone truly see this coming? This team, this coaching staff, and this program looked like it was destined to hit rock bottom with a brutal schedule to close out the season. And after a 1-5 start categorized by shocking collapses after the Cavaliers built up double digit leads, there wasn’t any point that this game felt comfortable for anyone sporting orange and blue.
Yet the final score reads 31-27. Virginia is 2-5. Tony Elliott has a top-10 win on his resume. UVA is still bowl eligible. This shouldn’t have happened. There was no way it would. THEY WERE 23.5 POINT UNDERDOGS! THIS DOESN’T HAPPEN.
But it did. And boy oh boy that’s something special. There’s more to this result than the final score and the vibes that emanate from it. But, for a moment, let’s soak it all in. Because this is something special.
Tony Elliott’s offensive scheme finally starts to click
It’s taken quite a bit of time to get rolling, but the offensive vision of Tony Elliott and offensive coordinator Des Kitchings is finally beginning to take shape. The Cavaliers under Elliott want to run the ball effectively — occasionally with multiple RBs in the backfield — and lean on that threat to create explosives in the play-action passing game.
This pro-style scheme is arguably harder to implement than a more standard simplified college spread offense. However, Elliott’s scheme (and, to be fair, the unanimous #1 overall pick in quarterback Trevor Lawrence) won a national championship — it’s fair to give him some credit for that success.
Last season, Elliott’s scheme and quarterback Brennan Armstrong clearly resulted in a square-peg, round-hole situation; Armstrong entering the transfer portal gave the second-year head coach the opportunity to seek out an ideal QB for his system in Monmouth transfer Tony Muskett. Virginia was set back by Muskett’s shoulder injury against an overwhelming Tennessee team in Week 1, and while Anthony Colandrea filled in admirably, his best plays came out of structure.
With a few weeks of consistency and Muskett at the helm, Virginia’s offense seems to have found its flow during a two-game winning streak. The Cavaliers produced 436 yards of total offense against a strong UNC defense, including 228 yards on the ground — a season-best mark. They kept the Tar Heels on the back foot all game, catching them off guard with play fakes for chunk gains and creating just enough big plays via Malik Washington magic to put up 31 points. Really, the Cavaliers should’ve scored 38 if not for a fluky goal-line fumble. With some continuity finally established, the arrow is pointing up on the Virginia offense.
Virginia finally wins on the margins after a season of miscues
All season, the Cavaliers have struggled on the margins of football games. Special teams, penalties, and fourth down decision making all harmed Virginia in early-season losses and played a key role in their 0-3 record in one-score games. Against North Carolina, that finally changed.
Tony Elliott’s uncharacteristic aggressiveness on fourth down early in the game earned four points for the Cavaliers. On fourth and 1 from the UNC 27 — a situation where we’ve seen Elliott opt for conservative field goals in the past — he sent out quarterback Grady Brosterhous for a quarterback sneak. The Cavaliers converted and went on to punch in a Mike Hollins touchdown two plays later. The difference between 7 and 3 points on that drive would prove to be the difference in a four-point win.
Meanwhile, UNC made textbook mistakes on the margins. Penalties were a thorn in their side all game long. The most important: a totally unnecessary holding call by a TE barely impacting the play wiped away a huge Drake Maye deep shot which would’ve handed the Tar Heels a 31-24 lead in the fourth quarter. They would ultimately settle for a field goal, allowing Virginia to take the lead on the following drive.
UNC punter Tom Maginness also struggled to hit a kick cleanly all game. Virginia’s special teams wasn’t doing a particularly effective job pressuring him, but he continued to shank and mis-hit punts from clean backfields. The first kick of the game was an easily returnable line drive, and things only went downhill from there. After UNC finally hit a clean kick and the crowd sarcastically cheered, a fair catch interference penalty late in the fourth quarter added 15 yards for Virginia. Maginness finished with a very underwhelming 33 net yards per punt; the Cavaliers spent all game with beneficial field position as a result.
UVa had TWO drives at the UNC 1 that yielded 0 points and still won. Also gave up 490 yards and were -1 in turnover margin and still won. pic.twitter.com/SDw6Z34iic— Justin Ferber (@Justin_Ferber) October 22, 2023
It felt like deja vu all over again when Mike Hollins fumbled through the back of the end zone — Virginia would regress to their typical losing ways, or at least so the Twitter crowd (Zach included) thought. But at the end of the day, the Cavaliers made big plays in a way we haven’t seen this season. James Jackson’s diving INT was the clutch forced turnover the ‘Hoos have somehow eluded for six weeks; sure, it would’ve been nice to start making these plays earlier in the year, but boy was it cathartic for a huge play to finally go Virginia’s way.
Malik Washington’s meteoric rise continues
When Virginia added wide receiver Malik Washington as a transfer from Northwestern, there were reasons to believe he’d establish himself early in the Cavalier offensive system. For one, Elliott and staff clearly targeted win-now players in the portal who could immediately contribute. Washington also tallied 224 yards in the final four games of the 2022 campaign.
But who saw this coming? Washington might be the best wideout in the ACC. Tony Muskett targeted him 16 times tonight (the rest of the team received 13 targets combined), and he produced 12 catches for 115 yards and a go-ahead touchdown to hand Virginia a 31-27 lead.
Malik Washington shakes off 4 defenders to get this 14-yard TD pic.twitter.com/U9Dpe68pnv— The CW Sports (@TheCW_Sports) October 22, 2023
That play, by the way, gave the Cavaliers a lead they would not relinquish. Washington has a knack for coming up big in huge moments and creating explosive plays with his elusiveness out of absolutely nothing. Multiple North Carolina linebackers had him dead to rights on that touchdown around the 10-yard line, and it simply didn’t matter.
What makes Washington’s stellar performance against UNC even more impressive is the fact that he’s been doing this sort of stuff on a weekly basis. Washington hasn’t been held below nine catches or 97 yards in a conference game, and is averaging 127 yards per game against ACC competition. The Northwestern transfer’s playing his way into the NFL Draft conversation.
It’s incredible to see Mike Hollins thriving
Mike Hollins had the best game of his career statistically, picking up 66 yards on 15 carries and punching in three touchdowns. Since this is a Virginia sports blog, I assume no one needs a recap of why that means so much. He did fumble through the back of the end zone late in the fourth quarter on a play that should’ve resulted in his fourth TD — but hey, nobody’s perfect.
The phrases “bigger than football” and “bigger than sports” get thrown around pretty liberally these days. Honestly, I feel gross whenever national TV announcers talk about the “tragedy in Charlottesville” every time they mention Hollins’s name for the first time. But Hollins’s ability to overcome adversity over the past year to even return to the field — let alone score three touchdowns against the #10 team in the country! — is incredibly inspirational.
There’s nothing to analyze here; just credit where credit’s due for an incredibly resilient human being.
I will never not get chills when Mike Hollins scores— Zach Carey (@Zach_Carey_) September 9, 2023